Major Jones, head of the Massachusetts State Constabulary, appointed William McKay of North Adams as his Berkshire County deputy in February 1866. Deputy Constable McKay didn't take long to make his presence known, particularly to liquor dealers. "About ten barrels of whisky, gin and beer were recently seized by him under the nuisance act, from the dwellings of Daniel Murphy and John Fitzgerald, and are now in the custody of the Police Court," the Pittsfield Sun said Aug. 9, 1866.
That raid was in North Adams. The next one was in Pittsfield a week later with an assist from Deputy Constables Cottrell of Lenox and Hulis of Boston. They called on 10 individuals who were purportedly dealing illicitly in alcohol.
The following January, McKay announced his engagement to Celestia V. Powers of North Adams. As a help to wedding expenses, in March he received a share of the $300 reward distributed for the apprehension of Hurt and Start, the notorious North County horse thieves.
In August 1870, Major McKay seized 17 10-gallon kegs at the express office in Adams. The title of major wasn't a promotion for McKay, it was reference to his old rank while serving with the 27th Massachusetts Volunteers. Born in the Scottish Highlands, he emigrated with his family to the United States in 1854, settling in West Troy, N.Y. He worked in a woolen mill in Blackinton section of North Adams until August 1861, when he enlisted as a private in Company H.
After his regiment's term expired in 1864, McKay returned to the field and served for the remainder of the war. He took part in Gum Swamp, Walthal Junction and Drewry's Bluff. He was severely wounded in the leg at Cold Harbor and in the left side at Petersburg. He was taken prisoner at Kingston and confined to a slave pen until transferred to Libby Prison. He was paroled days before Lee's surrender.
McKay was the only private in his regiment of 1,527 men who rose to become a field officer. He was a major when discharged.
In September 1870 he and Constable Pease pursued a swindler known as Henry Armstrong (among other aliases) active from Adams to Litchfield, Connecticut, and arrested him. In February 1871, McKay rounded up 11 kegs of liquor at the Troy depot. It was about to be shipped to parties in Adams and Clarksburg.
McKay's career appeared to be on the up-and-up, though one former state constable, Richard Savage, under investigation for unspecified reasons, testified in Boston that McKay once told him "they were to wink at the hotel keepers, but prosecute the low places." Savage claimed there were 64 liquor sources in North Adams before McKay came, "now there are 125." This was reported in the Pittsfield Sun for April 20, 1871.
Three months later, McKay was appointed to a new term as deputy constable. And in August 1871, the paper reported, "Constable McKay and his deputies seized a large amount of liquor and beer, last Friday; the largest number of barrels being taken from ex-Constable Savage, on Eagle Street. A barrel of whiskey was taken from Lynch & Dailey's grocery store on Eagle Street; these men intend to enter a protest, on the ground that the liquor was kept for their own use."
McKay didn't let up. That same month he raised the express office in North Adams and seized a large quantity of the "unlawful." In September he took "a wagon load of the stuff" after raiding saloons in South Adams. In October, he took 12 casks of Ohio whiskey and a barrel of wine from John Scott's barn in North Adams.
Was McKay soft on hotel owners? The saloon keeper at Ballou's Hotel block didn't think so in January 1872, when he was fined $150 and sentenced to six months in jail. That April, "Constable McKay called around among the South Adams liquor dealers on Thursday and took three barrels of beer from the Maple Grove depot, not marked to anyone, and half a barrel of beer at Tom Riley's. Tom was summoned to North Adams and got off for $50 and cost," the newspaper said.
The heat got to someone. There was a mysterious explosion at the residence of William Holbrook on Lady Hill, North Adams, in July 1872. McKay had just seized 60 barrels of beer that day, "intercepting it en route to Freeman's grove, and ordering the truckman to cart it to his barn. As the major, until very recently, has boarded at Mr. Holbrook's, there is little doubt that the explosion was intended as an act of revenge for this or other seizures which he has made."
McKay had for several years studied law in his spare time. In August 1872 he was ready to change careers. He quit as deputy. Liquor interests in North Berkshire breathed easier.
In 1875 McKay moved to Salt Lake City to practice law. He and his wife by then had three children. He was admitted to the bar of the Supreme Court of the United States in 1884. He didn't have to think about illegal liquor dealers any more.
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.